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Monica Lindstrom

In the future parents could be liable for crimes of their child

Police are staged in front of Sparks Middle School after a shooting in Sparks, Nev. on Monday, Oct. 21, 2013 in Sparks, Nev. A middle school student opened fire on campus just before the starting bell Monday, wounding two boys and killing a staff member who was trying to protect other children, Sparks police said Monday. The lone suspected gunman was also dead, though it's unclear whether the student committed suicide. (AP Photo/Kevin Clifford)

Could parents be held responsible for the crimes of their children? The short answer in Arizona is no, but they could be liable for their own inaction.

Just this week we learned of yet another tragedy involving a minor, a 9mm, murder and a suicide, this time all at Sparks Middle School. This happened outside of Reno, Nevada. Law enforcement is pushing to hold the parents accountable if that is who the 12-year-old boy obtained the firearm from.

So not only are the parents grieving from the death of their son and his horrendous actions, they may have to face charges themselves. This raises an interesting and thought provoking question. Could and should the parents be held responsible for the crimes of the child?

Our criminal justice system is based on mental states. In other words, a person is not typically charged with a crime unless they intended to commit the crime, failed to do something they should have done, or knew they were committing a crime. There are strict liability crimes, such as statutory rape, yet these are few and far between.

The question of whether a parent should be held responsible for the actions of their child needs to be split up into two parts; first, should they be held responsible for those actions if they knew or should have know, and second, should they be held responsible for those actions they did not know about.

The first question is easy to answer, yes. Parents who knew their children were about to commit a crime should absolutely be held responsible if their child in fact committed the crime and they did nothing to stop them. If the parents had enough reason to believe their child was likely to commit a crime and they did nothing then yes, they should be held responsible. However, if the parents had no indication or knowledge their child was about to commit a crime then no, they should not be held responsible. In Arizona, and likely every other state, if the parents are criminally negligent or they helped their child commit the crime, then yes, they can be held responsible.

The case in Florida dealing with the two bullies of a 12-year-old girl has its community in an emotional upheaval. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is demanding the parents of the oldest bully be held responsible for failing to monitor their daughter's actions on the internet. Apparently she used the internet to bully the girl, who ended up committing suicide. This would not be holding the parents responsible for the crime committed by their daughter, but instead it would be holding them liable for their failure to do something, monitor their daughter's online activities. To hold the parents responsible for failure to monitor their daughter would be a significant step for our criminal justice system.

When dealing with cases where a firearm is used by a minor, I think we can find a middle road between no liability on the parents and strict liability. Laws can be created to require parents to lock and store their firearms. This may not stop every instance but it sure wouldn't add to it. As to other cases, we have no laws that prohibit people from being parents or having children, nor are we likely to see such laws in our lifetimes. We have no laws that mandate how to raise a child or how to monitor them. As such, I find it unlikely a law mandating monitoring a child's online activities would be successful. The take-a-way is this: Arizona should have laws mandating the safe storage of firearms in a home accessible to children and parents SHOULD monitor their children's online activities.

Neither will stop tragedy yet both could save lives.

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About the Author


Monica is a legal commentator and practicing attorney with her own successful practice. She currently co-hosts The Agenda on KTAR with Joe Huizenga and is a regular guest on Mac and Gaydos. She has provided legal analysis on several national networks including HLN (shows including News Now, Happening Now In America, HLN After Dark, Evening Express, Raising America, Nancy Grace, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Dr. Drew), ABC's Good Morning America, Fox's The O'Reilly Factor, Neil Cavuto's Real World, Studio B with Shep Smith, and CNN's Headline News.

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